Let’s Make a Deal with IranBut let's make it a big one

This article was published in collaboration with POLITICO Magazine.

If there’s a single theme that has dominated American discussions about the nuclear negotiations with Iran, it is damage control. How much can we constrain Iran’s “breakout capacity”—its ability to build a bomb should it renounce a deal down the road? How low a ceiling can we place on the number of centrifuges Iran can have? More broadly, how can we keep Iran from rejoining the world too soon and engaging in normal commerce and collaboration?

Indeed, in some circles, the prospect of a less ostracized Iran is considered a major downside of any nuclear deal—at best a regrettable necessity, at worst reason not to do a deal at all. According to Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a deal will just allow Iran to “continue its worldwide terror activities, while it is no longer internationally isolated and its economy has been strengthened.”

These discussions might be moot, of course. With talks fast approaching a July 20 deadline, “very real gaps” remain between the two sides, says Secretary of State John Kerry, despite a reported new offer by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Failure would be very costly, however, and not just because of the nuclear issue.

Iran May Have Had a Nuclear Weapons Program — That Doesn’t Mean We Can’t Make a Deal

This article was published in collaboration with The Huffington Post.

Nuclear negotiations with Iran are coming down to the wire. The deadline set for completion of a deal is July 20—Sunday—and significant disagreements remain. The talks are likely to be extended for a few more months. But if an agreement is reached, the fight isn’t over. Elements of the deal would surely face challenges in Congress, where opponents of a deal have already pushed measures that would prevent America from complying with its end of the bargain. A deal signed in Vienna could well fall apart in Washington.

One of the key issues that Congressional critics of a deal will zero in on is evidence that Iran, prior to 2003, had a nuclear-weapons program. The way they will frame this issue was foreshadowed in a recent report coauthored by a former staffer to Senator Mark Kirk—a major Iran skeptic—and influential neoconservative expert Mark Dubowitz. The report warned that “Iran’s record of nuclear deception does not inspire confidence in Tehran’s commitment to honor any final nuclear agreement.” In other words, if Iran was indeed secretly developing nuclear weapons a decade ago, then the Iranians are not to be trusted, and this mistrust casts a shadow over the entire deal.

Are these critics right? Yes and no.

The Trouble With “Breakout Capacity”How a widely misunderstood term could doom the Iran nuclear negotiations

This article was published in collaboration with Slate.

For better or worse—and probably for worse—negotiations to peacefully resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program may hinge on a single technical term: “breakout capacity.”

“Breakout capacity” refers to the time it would take to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, should Iran at some point decide to build one. The term isn’t formally part of the negotiations that resumed in Vienna this week between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany). Rather, negotiators discuss things like how many centrifuges Iran should be allowed to keep as part of a peaceful nuclear energy program. But back in Washington, when people in Congress and elsewhere argue over what constitutes an acceptable deal, they talk in terms of breakout: How much breakout capacity would Iran have if left with a given number of centrifuges, or a given amount of some other variable under negotiation?

It’s a valid question. All the more unfortunate, then, that so many people—including politicians, pundits, and policy analysts—are so confused about it.